The Cinematheque Francaise have just announced the theme for 2013/14: Plan Sequence, or the ‘long take’. The earliest origins of cinema were in the fixed camera shooting unedited minute long sequences: the Lumiere Brothers being the prime exponent. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that film-makers developed the idea of stringing together sequences of shots, linked by motivated editing (to follow a narrative for example, or to complete an action).
Alain Bergala, artistic advisor to the Cent Ans de Jeunesse programme, writes about Plan Sequence:
The cinema was born in ‘plan sequence’, ie ‘long takes’, in the cinema of both Edison and the Lumière brothers.
It took five years for filmmakers to invent the assembly edit. But the assembly has never been an exclusive alternative to the long take, even though the two are rarely now used together.
With each new generation, for over 115 years, different auteurs produce “long takes” for whom this is the best way of making films that fits their worldview.
But most filmmakers use long takes in their films at times, even if they have chosen a film montage, when their film needs it.
There is no single model of long take, but there are a wide variety corresponding to different functions (look, contemplate, tell, wait, worry, dramatize, etc..) And various cosmetic uses of the long take (aesthetic of scene / aesthetic voice overs; aesthetics of fixity / aesthetic movement aesthetic renewal of sense / aesthetic sense of exhaustion; aesthetics of the tension between the figures / aesthetic harmony between the figures;. etc.)
We will draw up a typology, extremely rich, trying to identify the main types of long take and how they have been used throughout the history of film.
We do not think in terms of an the opposition to the assembly sequence but as a major option, a gesture always possible in every film, whatever its basic choices. We will see that the real choices, open and multiple, are just beginning when we decide to do a long take. “
Bergala signals how the typology for the theme will work: the use of the long take to carry out a particular narrative function (to look, contemplate, tell, wait, worry, dramatize, etc..), as opposed to the use of the long take to express aesthetic ambitions (aesthetic of scene / aesthetic voice overs; aesthetics of fixity / aesthetic movement aesthetic renewal of sense / aesthetic sense of exhaustion; aesthetics of the tension between the figures / aesthetic harmony between the figures;. etc.) which he calls ‘cosmetic’, but which maybe we shouldn’t think of as superficial, or showy uses of the technique. Sometimes, it’s true, film-makers take on bravura expressions of the camera to, in the word of Nathalie Bourgeois at the Cinematheque ‘show off their muscles’. Here’s an example of each.
Orson Welles famously planned this opening take meticulously, with overlapping diegetic sounds, and shot into the early dawn. The point was narrative: to introduce Vargas, our hero, and the McGuffin, in the form of an exploding car, in the same shot. But it’s also a bit of cinematic showing off!
Then this, from Matthieu Kassowitz’s La Haine, a massive crane shot from a tenement building flying off into the sky. A perfect example of ‘showing the muscles’!
Neither of which is really replicable in school…